Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Interview with Judith Totman Parrish
Does Darwin get the credit he deserves for his impacts on geology?
No, I think very few people understand that he had an impact on geology as well as on biology. Most people hear of Darwin in the context of the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution has been studied and developed well beyond where Darwin took it. I mean, we’ve had more than 100 years since the publication of “The Origin of Species,” and scientists have not stood still in studying the processes of evolution since then.
What do we know about a “changing earth” that we didn’t know in Darwin’s time?
At the time, there was absolutely no idea about plate tectonics, not even the ideas that came up 70 or so years later about matching the coastlines of Africa and South America. Even that really had not come about yet, and so the idea that the continents themselves had moved was way, way in the future still at Darwin’s time. Now, of course, when we think about earth changes, I think it’s probably fair to say that most geologists would immediately start thinking about plate tectonics.
You mentioned Gondwana. Can you explain what Gondwana is?
Gondwana is the supercontinent that was in existence for much of the last 500 million years and in some form or another, that consisted of what is now South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia, and then, as I said, bits and pieces of what's now the Middle East, for example. Italy was part of Gondwana at the time, and it started breaking up about 200 million years ago.
What will the major changes in Earth’s geology be in the next 100 or 500 million years?
Well, the continents are going to be in very different positions than they are today. It’s hard to study – it’s hard to imagine 500 million years in the future. It gets pretty speculative, but 100 million years in the future, for example, the East Indies and Australia will be part of Asia. They are now separated, of course, by the Indian Ocean and the various seas in the East Indies, but all of that is converging and, actually, that’s very interesting in and of itself because that’s sort of the end of a very long history of bits and pieces of Gondwana drifting away from Gondwana and becoming part of Asia, and this is just – this will just be sort of the last step. The Atlantic will be a lot wider than it is today. Perhaps the Bering Sea will be closed. Little hard to say what kinds of plate motion shifts that might occur in 100 million years. You can actually get shifts in the direction of plate motions, but that’s one idea about what the world’s going to look like in 100 million years.
What do you think the next big discovery will be in geosciences?
I would have to say that perhaps the – it would not surprise me for us to learn that, or re-learn, perhaps, that life on earth is far more robust than a lot of people give it credit for, particularly some of the discussion that’s occurring around global climate change and so on, is giving people – giving laypeople the impression that life on earth is very fragile and that we’re sort of on the brink of going extinct and, in fact, the mass extinction that we’re looking at today is nothing compared to some of the ones that happened in the past.
So you’re saying global climate change may impact life, but not wipe it out?
Correct. Given that at the Permo-Triassic extinction, something like 93 percent of species – it’s estimated that 93 percent of species went extinct, and yet life recovered and became even more diverse after that, gives me a lot of confidence that life is going to survive pretty well.